Magician and author Nate Staniforth returns to Iowa on a magical mystery book tour

Nate Staniforth Real Magic Tour

Englert Theatre — Saturday, Feb. 3 at 8 p.m.

Photo by Zak Neumann

Magician Nate Staniforth is interested in wonder — and he believes the rest of the world is, too. Wonder, he says, is something everyone cares about, but no one discusses. He wants that to change.

“In our culture, wonder has been ceded to the realm of Hallmark cards and Disney family entertainment,” he says during a wide-ranging Saturday morning conversation at High Ground Cafe. “But everyone cares about it. Everybody loves magic. Those moments where you lose your breath and just think, ‘Wow, that’s magic!’ — people search for that everywhere.”

He hopes that people search for that in his shows. But he knows that there are some who go to “sit there and try to figure everything out,” and those who go “ironically.” The goal, though, he says, is for everyone, no matter their reason for going, to have the same experience by the end.

Staniforth is about to embark on a tour that will bring him back to Iowa City’s Englert Theatre on Feb. 3. The impetus is Here Is Real Magic, the book, released on Jan. 16, that chronicles his journey with magic and wonder, from his childhood in Ames through a trip to India that brought more questions than answers.

The tour is a hybrid: His publisher and his manager joined forces in scheduling it to ensure that, at each stop, they partner with a local bookstore (Prairie Lights, here in Iowa City), and he envisions shows that are broken into three acts, with the first two being his usual magic show and the third dedicated to the book.

Here Is Real Magic is the latest step in Staniforth’s exploration of a host of ideas regarding wonder and its impact on our world. He recounts a story in the book of a meeting with a teacher in Rishikesh, India. After Staniforth performed several illusions, the man praised his skill, but expressed caution.

Staniforth writes, “… he suggested that I was using those talents in the wrong way. He told me I was like a young child who had been given a dollar and wasted it on candy rather than buying something important. ‘At this stage, you are only using your dollar for applause.’ You shouldn’t use it for a performance, he said. ‘It should be utilized for something higher inside you.’”

The book, Staniforth says, is the most concrete step forward he’s taken towards heeding that advice.

“I didn’t know what to do with that for a long time, because he was essentially saying, ‘Look at the last 20 years of your life and know that it’s a waste,’” he says. “I love magic, and I tolerate show business — sometimes well, sometimes poorly … I’ve learned to be on stage because that’s part of the job, but the book was this amazing way to sort of chase down those same ideas without having to wear skinny jeans and walk around on stage.”

Here Is Real Magic is an engaging, relatable collection of anecdotes from a someone whose greatest asset, as both a writer and a performer, is his ability to bring his audience along on his journey. He still doesn’t know for certain what that conversation in India meant, but he’s continually figuring it out, through any means necessary.

“For the longest time,” he says, “I thought that I could say everything that I wanted to say with a magic trick … But when I came back from India it felt like I had just been struck by lightning, and I needed to ground it somehow. That’s when I first thought, ‘Maybe I should learn how to write, maybe I should learn how to speak, maybe I should learn how to open my eyes to other forms of communication,’ because I wasn’t confident that I could just do it with a card trick.”

“I love magic, but it’s really good at saying one thing. And I’m jealous of poets and musicians and writers who get to talk about anything they want to. Can you imagine, like, banging your head against the wall for 20 years trying to do one thing, and ‘Oh, maybe I’ll just write about it!’”

The balance is a delicate one. Writing, of course, can’t do everything either, and every means of expression has its own drawbacks. Staniforth is exploring different modes of communication, but still firmly believes that everyone should know one good magic trick, and he’s even happy to help them learn.

“We’re all sort of performing for each other all the time,” he says. “The thing that a really great piece of magic does is, for just half a second, strips all of that away. As soon as something impossible happens, you can’t be cool anymore. You can’t consciously be anything, you’re just sort of fused to the moment. I feel like magicians get to see a very beautiful side of people that’s normally kept quiet. It’s changed the way I see the world. I want other people to have access to that, if they want it.”

It’s not a question of power, he notes. It’s not a question of a magician taking vulnerability from their audience. It’s about giving them a gift. And that gives the magician something even more profound than power in return.

“One of the best ways to feel wonder yourself is to give it away. It’s like parents pretending to be Santa Claus on Christmas, right? You’re not doing that to fool your children; you’re doing that to share this sort of enchantment together,” he says.

Magic, he is quick to point out, is not the endgame. “It’s more about how you look than where you look,” he says.

“The trouble with magic tricks is that they’re thin, rickety and cannot support the weight of what they’re trying to carry. So the best they can do is just carry it until you can take that on your own … I think one of the reasons [magic] is amazing is because it can’t last. Because it’s ephemeral.”

The true goal, it seems, is the wonder that the magic tricks illuminate.

“Once you accept that what you’re creating with magic is valuable … how can you take that same conviction and use it for something that has more lasting power than a show?” he asks. “I’m open to suggestions!”

Staniforth performs a different show every night, he says, and the show for Iowa City isn’t yet written. A lot of each show depends on the venue — a theatre and a bar, for example, have a vastly different vibe and attract distinctly different audiences. At a bar, Staniforth often has to fight for the kind of rapt attention that’s just handed to him by seated patrons in a theatre.

Then there’s the changes to the act itself. He adds something new on every tour, even if sometimes it’s just a small change to an already-established trick. There are pieces in his show, he says, that he’s been working on since high school, improving iteratively. Other illusions can’t be performed until they reach a certain point of accuracy. He has a tradition of introducing a new illusion at every Englert show (this will be his third).

The question he has wrestled with since his trip to India is how, and whether, to frame his act. If Here Is Real Magic was a first step towards doing “something higher” with his skillset, how does he leverage his stage show into becoming step two?

“How open should I be about what I’m actually trying to do?,” he asks. “I’m trying to package an awful lot into the pill-shaped vessel of a magic show.”

It’s a constant tension between the trivial role magic has in the modern world and the weight of what he’s trying to impart.

“The thing that a moment of impossibility gives you,” he says of the effect of a really successful trick, “[is that] it’s like a reminder that whatever your cosmology is, it’s insufficient.”

In the cultures and eras when magic was considered a faith practice, he says, many of the techniques used were the same as those used by stage magicians today. But their purpose wasn’t to trick or to deceive, he says, but to serve as a conduit between people and the wider world around them.

“That fascinates me a lot,” he says, “but I don’t know how to take that and dress it up as a magic show. You have to work in the culture that you’re in.”

Genevieve Trainor believes in magic. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 235.